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`Street Scene' comes to life with vitality

February 14, 2007|Richard S. Ginell | Special to The Times

In a strange, fortuitous coincidence (or was it?), the two most imposing, rarely seen totem poles of Kurt Weill's Berlin and Broadway periods are going virtually head-to-head in our area: "Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny" at Los Angeles Opera and "Street Scene" with the Musical Theatre Guild.

The two works are separated by a mere 17 years, but they might as well have come from two different Kurt Weills, each with his own voice patched together from a cornucopia of influences.

"Street Scene" opened on Broadway in 1947 for a 148-performance run -- a flop by Broadway standards but one of those honorable flops that aim high and become posthumous legends. Historians still argue whether it is an opera or a musical play, but maybe the right definition is that it is a musical on the way to becoming an opera, with through-composed passages and underscoring but also lots of dialogue and some Broadway shtick.

As always, Weill had blue-chip collaborators: Elmer Rice, who wrote the play on which the show is based, did the book, and poet Langston Hughes the lyrics. They tried to create a teeming portrait of life in front of an aging brownstone building in mid-20th century New York City.

By 1947, Weill's American language was solidly in place. He could pull blues, Tin Pan Alley pop and jazz tunes out of his hat, all stamped with his harmonic signatures (none became hits, although the jitterbug number "Moon-Faced, Starry-Eyed" should have). Alas, when Weill mixed grand opera into the pot, he fell hard, becoming mawkish, sentimental, the tough edge from his Berlin years long gone.

The show has heart, it has vitality, it has a conscience. But it leaves a sickly sweet taste in one's mouth, as if Weill, intent on fusing a new kind of opera, had lost his way in a sea of American verismo as the street rhythms gave way to melodrama.

Usually the piece, with its huge cast and operatic demands, is left to opera companies -- New York City Opera exported a fine production here in the late '70s -- so that made Musical Theatre Guild's seat-of-the-pants production on only a weekend's rehearsal a real challenge.

The cast rose to the occasion with zest and emotional commitment at the Alex Theatre on Monday night, however, with only two fence railings, two trash cans and two sets of steps as sets. The indigestible passages actually benefited from being played by a 12-piece pit band instead of an opera orchestra -- and much of the rest had the snap and crackle of Broadway of 60 years ago.


`Street Scene'

Where: Scherr Forum, Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, 2100 Thousand Oaks Blvd., Thousand Oaks

When: 3 p.m. Sunday

Price: $39

Contact: (805) 583-8700

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